A Theory of Theory of Mind: Part One

(Reader Beware: Highly-concentrated theorizing ahead. Not suitable for the literal-minded and those averse to highly-speculative ideas. Here be dragons.)

Many months ago, in the heart of Sodom, I met up with a rather aimless fellow for lunch and high-level conversation. One of the things we touched on briefly was how the people who are really good at rigorous, objective analysis tend to have poorly-developed theory of mind, and how this is especially true at the level of really high-level analysis.

Granted, of course, one could apply objective analysis to people and come up with some very good theorems. This is, after all, what the early pick-up artist community did (and what the game community continues to do). I’m loath to call this theory of mind, however. It is one thing to have abstract knowledge and another thing to have visceral understanding, and this is a case in which one can possess the former and not the latter.

Or, to put a new twist on an old thought experiment: Mary understands everything about human beings except human beings.

It would also be easy to chalk this up to the inability of very intelligent people to be able to comprehend the average mind, due to the gulf in cognitive capacities. I’m not satisfied by this answer though. There are a lot of very intelligent people who are able to perfectly comprehend other people. In fact, high intelligence seems to be very helpful in this regard.

It would be equally easy to postulate that underlying brain processes tend to steer someone towards one strength or another. This certainly makes sense, but it it only kicks the can down the road in regard to underlying explanation.

This is something I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now, and I think I’ve finally worked out an important piece of the puzzle.

As I’ve suggested before, I think theory of mind is connected in some way to verbal IQ. Furthermore, let’s also assume that differences in cognitive process styles become more pronounced as intelligence increases (one explanation for the observation I noted a few days ago if we assume that 130 is around the mark that such differences become noticeable).

What this would mean is that although general intelligence is correlated with both verbal and mathematical intelligence, greater intelligence also leaves more room for a difference in the relative levels of each (I suspect that the correlation between different types of intelligence breaks down as people become more intelligent, though I wish I could find some hard data that deals with this point).

This would indicate the verbal IQ results from a mind wired for a certain type of processing, with mathematical IQ arising from a different type of mind. This difference can only be observed at the far end of the spectrum as a result of the differences in brain structure and activity needed to produce a high-level intellect.

Plausible? I suppose the key point here is the degree to which a brain begins to specialize as it becomes more intelligent (whether intelligence causes specialization or specialization causes intelligence is trivial to what I am trying to propose here, though it does bring up interesting avenues of research for people who study intelligence). Let us assume I am generally on the ball here, as the alternative is to assume I am off my rocker and end this post here.

It seems that the underlying mechanism behind verbal IQ is that of synthesizing and simulating new possibilities, while mathematical IQ is that of logical deduction and drawing valid inferences from prior knowledge. I’ll be one of the last people to ever deny that you can be good at both, but I will posit that almost everybody’s cognitive processing is going to be dominated by one process or the other.

Second (and this is another crazy intuition here), verbal IQ is more strongly connected to associative horizon than mathematical IQ is. Why would this be important? Well, let’s see what happens in a mind lacking associative horizon:

If associative horizon is depressed, one might still be a good bookkeeper, clerk, banker, translator, corrector, editor, lawyer, diplomat, politician, public servant, or scholar in the “humanities”. In fact one might be good at any one of a whole lot of things more, but show a lack of originality and humour…


They feel less attracted to the natural sciences (although they may be intelligent enough for those) because of the strictly empirical nature of those disciplines, which requires one to change one’s point of view or paradigm whenever the empirical data contradict one’s expectation. And persons with narrow associative horizons are not able to change paradigms as they are rigid. They prefer the “alpha” sciences, which traditionally employ an a priori paradigm or model that is imposed upon reality and not adapted empirically. Their high intelligence enables them to argue or debate endlessly in apparently logical constructions of infinite complexity, while their narrow associative horizon keeps them from seeing the larger picture, the road ahead, and therefore keeps them from being goal-directed, so that their apparent logic does not bring them any closer to truth or righteousness in the end…


If associative horizon is depressed, this too may make a “stupid” impression. For example, not grasping subtle humour or irony, not recognizing brilliant new ideas, not getting “the bigger picture”; those are all behaviours that make someone appear “stupid” despite being of higher intelligence.

  –Paul Cooijmans

There’s a lot of important information there, but here’s the most relevant passage:

Persons with narrow associative horizons are not able to change paradigms as they are rigid. They prefer the “alpha” sciences, which traditionally employ an a priori paradigm or model that is imposed upon reality and not adapted empirically. Their high intelligence enables them to argue or debate endlessly in apparently logical constructions of infinite complexity…their apparent logic does not bring them any closer to truth or righteousness in the end.

Rigid, objective models that are imposed upon reality. Does that sound like the sort of thing a verbally-inclined or a mathematically-inclined person would gravitate towards?

This is my theory: people who tend towards mathematics-style processing have terrible theory of mind because they are constantly reaching conclusions about what people should do and how people should objectively behave. These are, of course, conclusions that in no way describe what people actually do. Hence, poor theory of mind among mathematical IQ-dominant types.

(Side note: I shared a simplified version of this idea with some of my engineer friends. They were all in agreement that people are stupid and do stupid things that they shouldn’t do.)

Of course, this is a fairly self-evident proposition, as anyone who has spent time around such people knows (there is a reason we have the stereotype of the socially awkward but intellectually-gifted nerd). The bit that took some effort to dig up was the underlying mechanism by which a mathematical IQ-dominant brain will tend to have poor theory of mind.

What this doesn’t tell us is why a high verbal IQ might be associated with good theory of mind. That said, it does leave us some dots to connect. Verbal IQ is possibly linked with associative horizon. A lack of associative horizon leaves one unable to shift paradigms in the face of empirical evidence, and leaves one to prefer objective, internally-consistent models that disregard empirical evidence to the contrary. Ample associative horizon will allow one to see indirect connections and update their mental schemas in light of new evidence. People don’t make sense if you start with a priori notions, but you can build frameworks that make sense in light of new evidence. Ergo, if I am generally correct in my assertions, verbal IQ is linked to theory of mind by way of associative horizon.

But is there possibly a direct connection between theory of mind and verbal IQ? Well, there is a reason that this is only Part One.



8 thoughts on “A Theory of Theory of Mind: Part One

  1. Bryce Laliberte 11/18/2014 / 12:09 AM

    “What this doesn’t tell us is why a high verbal IQ might be associated with good theory of mind.”

    How do you verify the usage of words? By comparing observable behavior.

    How do you construct a theory of mind? By comparing observable behavior.

  2. Richard 11/18/2014 / 12:10 PM

    There are no limits to what can be said or written down. The ability to construct an idea out of nothing but your own imagination is a very creative act. Jews, with their very high verbal skills, honed to a sharp edge, place a mystical value on the creation of words. They believe that what is uttered (by Jews, that is) into existance is a product of God’s mind. The fabrication of words and ideas from nothingness is a profound act of creation.

  3. Aeoli Pera 11/19/2014 / 1:11 PM

    This is some great stuff. You may also have inspired an intuition of my own, but I’ll have to sit on it for a while.

  4. wenshuang 11/22/2014 / 7:38 AM

    I’m not convinced that “theory of mind” is a durable construct. Also, high functioning autistics, allegedly TOM deficient, can have high verbal ability. I think TOM is a bad vector because inter-subjectivity is neither necessarily linguistic nor theoretical.

  5. disenchantedscholar 12/08/2014 / 7:35 AM

    You have run headlong into a problem I’ve had: there are no high-IQ exclusive studies. Hence, high-IQ are treated as a homogenous blob.
    There is the biological substrate approach you miss. Most ‘forms’ of IQ have strong neural correlates and they tend to overwhelm or dominate, making a globally strong mind incredibly rare, usually at the expense of something else. I’m sure you know the hormone theories.

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